The presence of God

This (rather long) post explores the slippery concept of ‘the presence of God’ by meditating particularly on the narrative of Moses. Since humans, in some sense, carry God’s image, we consider how, as-image bearers, our role is to fill the earth with light and partner with God to ‘fill the earth with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea’. It’s a long read but (though I say it myself) well worth the effort.

A coincidence?

I remember distinctly the day I was preparing to travel to speak at a conference and was meditating on the prayer of Moses: ‘I will not go unless you go with me.’

I began to pray – not the prayer of Moses, but a question: can I pray such a prayer? Would God’s presence go with me? What does that mean anyway? I’ve heard such nonsense spoken about the ‘presence of God’, not least in loud charismatic meetings where it seems to be equated either with a fuzzy warm feeling associated with overly-sentimental songs, or the amount of sweat generated. Anyway – isn’t God omnipresent?

About five minutes later my phone rang: it was a good friend of mine. She said: ‘I’ve just been praying for you – I felt I should tell you to read Joshua chapter one – especially verse five.’ I read:

Moses my servant is dead. Therefore, the time has come for you to lead these people. I promise you what I promised Moses. For I will be with you as I was with Moses. I will not fail you or abandon you… Be strong and courageous… Be strong and very courageous… This is my command – be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

The problem is that there have been too many ‘coincidences’ in my life to ignore. I did not believe for one moment that I was Moses’ successor, but the message seemed clear – that God was with me. I did not feel ‘God’s presence’, whatever that means, but I prayed the prayer of Moses nonetheless – and wrote the song ‘Moses’ Prayer’.

But what does it mean – to experience ‘God’s presence’?

I remember, as a very young believer, hearing a talk about the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’. Being in a church that did not believe in such things (the talk was somewhere else), I had no reference point. Nevertheless, I prayed in bed that night that God would baptise me with God’s Spirit. What happened? Nothing – or so it seemed. I was expecting some kind of laser-display from heaven, or at least a fuzzy warm feeling. But nothing. I felt nothing, anyway – does this mean nothing happened?

So let’s think about God’s presence. Moses built the Ark of the Covenant – a box, basically, albeit ornate, to contain God’s presence. It contained symbols, one of which was bread, but of interest here is the fact that it seemed to burn with God’s glory – a fire which heated Moses’ face so that it glowed. ‘And the people of Israel would see the radiant glow of his face’, so much so that he took to wearing a veil, ‘So he would put the veil over his face until he returned to speak with the Lord.’

This is normally interpreted as him not wanting to unnerve people, or as an act motivated by respect which made him sensitive about bringing the Lord’s glory to a profane world (it was said that if you saw God’s glory, you would die. But, as George MacDonald points out, Paul says he did it so that people would not see the glory fading. Did he, perhaps, want to give the impression that the glory was always there – that he himself was, if not divine, then at least perennially godly?

MacDonald asks a very pertinent question: what if Moses had not worn the veil? Might the people then have been more focused on God than on his servant? MacDonald (and Saint Paul, it seems) argue that because the veil hid the waning glory, and therefore to some extent the truth of Moses’ imperfect humanity, they never did learn to relate directly to God. The result? – ‘But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart’.

acting the part

One lesson here is the need to avoid ‘hype’. It’s easy to act and speak like God’s anointed prophet with pretensions of glory and to hide behind appearances – to twitch and moan, speak with a weird voice, play manipulative music, work the crowd, claim to be God’s mouthpiece, have your own TV show since you are so special. But once the studio lights are switched off, and you are taking off your make-up in the dressing room – is the ‘glory’ still there? There is a veil over many people’s hearts today because God’s so-called prophets have misrepresented him so badly. Most people have never rejected Christ, only Christianity.

But this does not detract from the fact that God’s glory was present in the Ark, nor do I want to question Moses’ motives – he was no doubt acting with integrity, especially since he was described as ‘a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.’

Treasure in earthen vessels

The Ark, however, was very much a temporary shelter, a portable shrine used for an itinerant and homeless tribe. When they eventually settled, it was put into ‘Moses’ Tent’ at Gibeon and became a place of pilgrimage and worship, but now we come to some interesting developments.

Some 400 years or so after its installation at Gibeon (by then it must have been a venerable social institution, older than the Houses of Parliament), King David had the audacity to move it to a new tent in Jerusalem. (The story of its moving is significant, but we will not consider that now.) The result is two ‘tents’ – one in Gibeon and one in Jerusalem. We read that David kept priests at both sites:

David arranged for Asaph [the percussionist] and his fellow Levites to serve regularly before the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant […]  meanwhile David stationed Zadok the priest and his fellow priests at the Tabernacle of the Lord at the place of worship in Gibeon where they continued to minister before the Lord.

The latter group may have felt somewhat short-changed, to put it mildly. Their ancient Ark was now in Jerusalem, apparently still burning with God’s glory, for David writes: ‘I have seen you in your sanctuary and gazed upon your power and glory.’

God in a box

There are some important lessons here. The first concerns the incongruence of God living in a box or a tent – frankly, it is absurd. The structure itself speaks of contingency – a temporary solution only. Why does God do this?

We find the key, perhaps, in Genesis where Cain (like Adam and Eve before him) is driven from God’s presence. As he is exiled, Cain says: ‘Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth’. Cain is here exiled ‘on the earth’, and driven away from ‘the land’. ‘The earth’ – in this context – is a metaphor for a place that does not benefit from God’s presence. However one reads the story of the Fall, the earth as we know it is clearly infected with evil, and the whole narrative of the Bible concerns God’s actions to deal with this terrible situation. The Ark, it seems, is one of the first entry points where God begins his rescue plan – a place of first leverage where God begins to prise open the stronghold of evil. But it is just that – an entry point – a temporary measure commensurate with the social, religious, political and geographical situation at the time.

Divine radiance – shining in the world

The second lesson is this: that just as Solomon was no fool and realised that even his gold-covered temple was no fit place for the God of the universe, so we must always remember that temples are always temporary solutions – temporary structures that will one day be obsolete. God has a habit of moving on, and humans have a habit of camping and worshipping at the old established places, and church history is full of the empty shells of past revivals, monuments to a forgotten history.

I often say that Christianity was never meant to be a monument but a movement: only two letters distinguish these words, yet what a difference such a small change makes! In fact I would go so far as to say that Christianity was never meant to be a religion, if religion is defined in terms of repetitive acts of devotion based on historical revelation. Should not our devotional acts come from, or at least find meaning in, present revelation? Does not the whole gospel narrative concern the inherent antithesis between a living relationship with God and dead religion?

Before we leave Gibeon, however, it is worth noting that David’s son, Solomon, went there to ‘consult the Lord’, and as a result, ‘That night God appeared to Solomon and said, “What do you want? Ask, and I will give it to you!”’ Can God be in two places?

Carrying the glory of God

This leads us to some interesting considerations. Jumping ahead for a moment, it seems that God’s plan is to get rid of all temples and all religion, for if God’s plan is to remove evil from the earth – which it clearly is – then Cain’s exile is no longer necessary or possible. The whole earth, Habakkuk says, will be ‘filled with the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’. That rather lame metaphor (sea is water) speaks of God’s pervading presence in the earth, and humanity living with God. This is why John, in his mystical visions recorded in Revelation, can find no temple. Why? Because ‘the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.’ Yes, John does see the Ark of Moses in Revelation, but it seems to me that this is a metaphor (to a first-century Jew) of God’s presence – that the same God who was with Moses is the God that fills heaven.

So returning to Gibeon: it must have been thought-provoking to all to have such a strong experience of the divine presence in Gibeon, knowing that the Ark was not there but burning in Jerusalem. No doubt there were Gibeonites and Jerusalemites who refused to speak to one another, each claiming to be God’s servants and guardians of the truth.

Breaking out of the box

Yet this was just the beginning of something extraordinary. A few hundred years later – things having gone seriously downhill since the glorious days of Solomon – Israel was occupied by the armies of Babylon and an Israeli priest called Ezekiel was deported to Iraq, about 900km from his home. The curious vision he saw of ‘wheels within wheels’ had a very significant meaning for him. Above the wheels Ezekiel saw a vision of the throne of God – it was a highly bizarre vision, but the bottom line was that it was a picture of a mobile God. Here, on pagan territory, miles from Jerusalem, was the presence of God. Historically this period marks the beginning of the synagogue era in Judaism – God, it seems, is bent on his mission, which he originally subcontracted to humanity, that of ‘filling the earth’ with beings carrying the imago Dei. As you read the strange book of Ezekiel, it is notable that the presence of God leaves the temple. In Ezekiel’s eyes, this would have been heart-breaking, but God, it seems, is again breaking out and moving on.

In the Ark of Moses, you remember, some bread was placed symbolically to represent the presence of God. Hundreds of years after Ezekiel’s vision, another Jew who claimed divinity sat with his friends for dinner. He took some bread in his hands, ‘then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take this and eat it, for this is my body.”’ From that day they carried the presence of God in them – they shared in their friend’s divinity, his nature. God was no longer confined to a man-made box, even though it, and its successors, was beautiful. God made it possible for us – even now – to experience the goal of human existence which is to live in an intimate relationship with God, to live in his presence. Perhaps I am a successor to Moses after all?

So image-bearers grew in the earth, and yet they often forgot (and still forget) that God no longer lives in a box – a physical box, a doctrinal box, or even a religious box (as Desmond Tutu said, ‘God is not a Christian’. This is not to say that ‘boxes’ are not necessary, but simply that we need to remember that God transcends human constructs, whether physical or conceptual.

Just one final thought: living in God’s presence is not to experience warm fuzzy feelings all the time. Primarily it concerns the choice to offer the bread that you carry, like the little boy with five loaves and two fish, to God and to others. God’s command to Moses still applies: ‘Place the Bread of the Presence on the table to remain before me at all times.’ My hope is that as more of us make this choice, that God’s presence will indeed grow on the earth.